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Two Months After Fall, Castro on His Feet

December 17, 2004

HAVANA (AP) _ Cuban President Fidel Castro is back on his feet less than two months after breaking his left kneecap and right arm in a fall.

During a visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez this week, Castro vigorously shook hands _ with his right arm _ and stood unassisted for several minutes at a time.

The 78-year-old has not started walking, however, at least not in public view.

``His ability to recover and be back in public and doing his normal daily routine is testament to his good health,″ said Dr. Lawrence D. Dorr, a Los Angeles physician who has led several medical missions to Cuba to provide hip and knee replacements.

``His rapid recovery is also a testimonial to the high quality of orthopedic surgeons that are there in Cuba,″ Dorr added in a telephone interview.

The Cuban leader made headlines around the globe when he stumbled and fell Oct. 20 in the central city of Santa Clara.

``I’m all in one piece,″ Castro declared on state television after tripping on a concrete step while returning to his seat at the end of an hour-long speech.

The following day, an official notice in Cuban state media said that the president’s general health was good and that he hoped to be ``back in place″ soon.

A few weeks later, Cuban television showed Castro sitting in a wheelchair, his arm in a sling, during a surprise visit by Chavez on Nov. 7. Castro was dressed in sporty clothes, in contrast to the suit or olive military fatigues he generally wears to receive visitors.

The Cuban leader then surprised many people when he suddenly stood up from his wheelchair during a state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao on Nov. 23, a month after the fall. He leaned on a metal cane with an arm support while the Chinese and Cuban national anthems played.

On Tuesday, during a military ceremony attended by Chavez, Castro again popped up from his wheelchair, this time standing for several minutes with no support.

Later that day, he again stood up after signing agreements with Chavez to increase trade between their two countries. He initially braced himself on a table, then stood up tall.

On Thursday, after being rolled in his wheelchair to a meeting of more than 300 Americans attending trade talks in Havana, Castro stood up to loud applause.

``He looks healthy and fine,″ Chris Aberle of Des Moines, Iowa, who was at the meeting, told The Associated Press by cell phone.

Aberle said Castro spoke to the Americans for several hours, discussing his government’s recent decision to eliminate the circulation of the American dollar in Cuba, biotechnology and health care on the Caribbean island.

While Castro was addressing the Americans, he received a call from Chavez, who had apparently arrived to Brazil after his Cuba trip. Castro proceeded to talk to the Venezuelan president for about 20 minutes while the Americans looked on, hearing one side of the conversation.

``Through Fidel, he invited us all to Venezuela,″ Aberle said. ``It was certainly an interesting time.″

After his accident, presidents and high-profile friends around the globe sent Castro get-well wishes. American movie director Oliver Stone sent a letter saying Castro could play the movie role of ``Superman’s grandfather″ for handling the operations and recovery so well.

In the last several years, Castro’s knees have seemed more wobbly, his step less steady. But given his age, he appears to be strong and maintains a busy schedule that frequently includes all-night meetings with aides and visitors.

Requests to speak with Castro’s doctors were not immediately granted.

Dorr, the American doctor, speculated Castro was already walking a bit in private, but probably stiffly. He said it could take several more months for the leader to be able to walk comfortably.

``After that kind of injury, healing could take as long as six months,″ said Dorr, who works at the Arthritis Institute of Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Southern California.

He pointed to the example of American football star Jerry Rice, who he said tried to return to play three months after a kneecap operation but suffered a relapse.

``I don’t care whether you’re 20 or 70 years old, you’ve got to let the bone heal,″ Dorr said.

The biggest problem after breaking a kneecap is being able to bend the knee comfortably again, he said.

``The longest recovery for (Castro) will be in activities like climbing stairs,″ Dorr said.

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